Netflix may be the worst best thing to happen to animation in years.
At a time when mainstream animation is becoming more and more homogenized (and frankly bad), the streamer is taking some risks. They released “Klaus”, the first mainstream hand-dawn animated film in eight years, last November and quickly followed that up with “I Lost My Body”, which was a very odd, very adult animated film that was rewarded with an Academy Award nomination.
Earlier this weekend, they took another risk by releasing “A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon” – a British stop-motion animated comedy that has been punted around by the American studio system for well over a year.
This is all well and good, and you have to give Netflix kudos for giving voice to creators who might never have their work viewed otherwise.
But it begs the question: How many of you knew that “Farmageddon” became available on Netflix this weekend? And how many of you knew that a god-awful film about Sonic the Hedgehog was being released in theaters the same weekend? My guesses are ‘nobody’ and ‘everybody’ respectively. Chalk it up to another win for the studio system.
I ask because I had to do some serious digging to find “Farmageddon” on Netflix. I doubt that anybody who isn’t actively looking for it will be able to track it down. Sadly, a lot of worthy Netflix content goes unwatched, and that will likely be the case with “Farmageddon”.
And that’s a crying shame because “Farmageddon” has more charm in its first five seconds – in which a sheep in a tuxedo plays the Aardman Animation theme song on an electronic keyboard- than many modern animated films have in their entire runtime.
A brief recap for those outside of the U.K.: Shaun is not a new character. In fact, this year marks the 25th anniversary of his first appearance in “A Close Shave,” a short featuring Britain’s famous cartoon duo Wallace and Gromit. (To bring things full circle, the inventor and his dog have a charming cameo in the opening moments of “Farmageddon”.)
Following “A Close Shave”, Shaun spun off into his own British TV show and eventually his own theatrical movie in 2015. Both were inutterably charming, if underseen in the U.S.
A large part of the charm of the Shaun episodes and movies is how universal they are. There is no dialogue- the sheep bleat and the humans mumble indistinctly ala the “Peanuts” parents- which means a Shaun film in the U.S. is identical to one in Saudi Arabia, which is just one of the foreign countries that Shaun has been exported to in recent years.
There is a simplicity and integrity to these stories that I find incredibly refreshing: Shaun and his flock run afoul of the sheepdog Blitzer, who has lame rules like “Don’t shoot sheep out of cannons.” Blitzer tries to hide the flock’s misbehavior from the farmer. Mayhem ensues.
It’s Charlie Chaplin meets “Looney Tunes” – with all the charm that implies.
“Farmageddon” adds a few new wrinkles to the formula with the introduction of Lu-La – an alien that looks a bit like a periwinkle puppy dog who has crashlanded near Shaun’s farm. Before you can say “E.T. phone home,” Shaun teams up with Lula to evade the authorities and return her to her home planet safely.
The plot is contrived enough that you may wonder if the good folks at Aardman have run out of ideas for Shaun and his pals after all these years. The show and first movie were much more grounded – as grounded as an animated sheep can be- and a hard turn into sci-fi is unexpected if not unpleasant.
I didn’t leave the film entirely convinced that this particular story needed to be told, but there was still enough charm to see me through to the end. It also helps that “Farmageddon” clocks in at a spitely 87 minutes.
Kids will enjoy the slapstick and the huggable characters. Parents will appreciate the handcrafted artistry and the steady stream of puns – i.e. the H.G. Wheels car repair company- along with light spoofs of everything from “E.T.” to “Doctor Who” to “2001: A Space Odyssey”. There is even the kindest, gentlest reference to the body horror of “Alien” that I’ve ever seen.
“Kind” and “gentle” are perhaps the go-to words to describe “Farmageddon” (rated G). What it lacks in plot ingenuity, it more than makes up for in handcrafted niceness. That might not sell on the big screen anymore, but it’s nice to see that there is still a place for it on Netflix.
About the author
Stephen Dow is an award-winning journalist with a passion for film – not just consuming it, but thoughtfully and actively engaging with it. He believes that these modern myths have a lot to tell us about our world and ourselves. He can be reached at email@example.com.